From mobile phones, drones, apps and robots to virtual reality (VR), the notion that technologically driven innovations are continuously shaking up food culture poses a not-so-gentle reminder that digital and electronic creations are causing a tide of disruption in the food and beverage industry.
Video clips of food-delivery robots working their way down urban sidewalks offer glimpses of what are likely significant changes ahead in robotic food production and distribution, just as VR may represent new ways to experience culinary techniques and recipes and even preview a restaurant's menu. While socially we're generally accepting of technology that doesn't clash too aggressively with our personal world (e.g., chatbots that help us customize a take-out order), we are collectively less likely to trust technologies that rub us the wrong way (delivery drones that buzz low and frighten the family dog) or which smack of factories and industrial laboratories (GMOs, biotechnology).
In general, we find that technology, digital platforms and related gadgets are highly influential in shaping consumer preferences in a changing food system: In our 2012 report, “Clicks and Cravings,” The Hartman Group chronicled the early adoption of mobile phones and the power of such devices to document a changing food culture as consumers photographed, videoed and shared new food, recipes and eating experiences via social media.
Today, as consumers continue to move away from an industrialized food past, the way that they think about consumption has radically shifted to a completely different mindset when it comes to what they are looking for in foods and beverages. As an example, mobile technology enables consumers to unlock access to information on the go to look for foods that meet their particular values and the needs of their family. Because of this, transparency has become a new norm, and consumers increasingly have questions about the food they buy and eat, and consequently how industrial and technological forces are involved.
In their most successful offerings, technology and digital platforms assist consumers in making a human connection with foods, beverages and meals. Among many disruptive technologies we're seeing, here are some points to consider about some of them.
Virtual Reality (VR)
While still in a developmental phase, we think VR may be part of a shift away from an internet of information to an internet of experiential discovery and richer experiences. VR may eventually be a great cooking and instructional aid. It’s already gaining popularity as an entertainment tool—perhaps one day we'll be able to virtually stand over the shoulder of Iron Chef contestants? Other ways VR might impact the food industry, from restaurant and retail to the online shopping experience, include:
Drones and robots
We're a little skeptical of drones used for food delivery — consumers say they might use a drone for certain hypothetical occasions (forgotten party items like wine or alcohol), but they will also commonly cite safety concerns and perceived issues with privacy, as well as concerns for visual and noise pollution. Concerns over size and weight of drone deliveries is also a big sticking point. Robots suffer from similar issues. While we certainly don’t need to tip a robot delivering lunch to our workplace (and the convenience and adaptability of such devices in certain delivery situations seems of benefit), it appears that robots used further down the supply chain — in agriculture and tedious aspects of food service and food manufacturing and logistics — are more likely to be more consumer-friendly uses of such devices.
Apps, chatbots and digital platforms are pretty much here to stay
If a brand doesn’t do mobile ordering right and make it a user-friendly experience, it is essentially missing out on a new media channel and point of purchase. Taco Bell’s Tacobot seems to be getting significant interest. Robertson Allen, a consultant with The Hartman Group, notes that while some restaurants have their own ordering app with chatbot capabilities, we are seeing more restaurant companies explore the use of pre-existing messaging tools as chatbot platforms. This takes out the extra step of downloading a stand-alone restaurant app for mobile ordering. In addition to letting consumers use an app they already have instead of downloading a restaurant’s app — freeing up valuable smartphone real estate — chatbots appeal to consumers. Why? “Because they simulate a human conversation and create a more fun context around the food-ordering experience,” said Allen. “Unlike other online ordering systems, they provide an experiential layer that makes the process feel less impersonal and purely transactional.”
David Feit, Hartman Group Vice President of Strategic Insights, is impressed with The New York Times Cooking app. "The NYT's digital experiences have been top-notch for awhile, with great visual storytelling to justify the price of a paying subscription,” Feit said and elaborated further.
“A few months ago, they updated their stand-alone Cooking app with tweaks that finally make this compelling. First, it's more visual now, with photos of prepared recipes really driving the experience. Second, it’s more "editorial," with a magazine-like feel, featuring topical, editor-selected collections of recipes that correspond with seasons, holidays, etc. And third, now that it's cycling through the 2nd or 3rd year of reader/user engagement, there are enough comments ("tips") from other users to truly add value on each recipe.
“When all is said and done, it's increasingly more the sum of its parts. It manages to maintain the polish of a magazine without succumbing to an overly linear or commercial feel. It manages to bring in user comments without diluting the strong center of expertise. Unlike other recipe sites, it doesn't tell you that you're creating a customized recipe box, but you find yourself using it like it's your own secret collection of your grandma's recipes — or in fact, recipes from around six different grandmas and other generous, articulate people who have adopted you into their families."
Food Delivery 2.0 and the smartphone
Finally, we’d feel remiss if we didn’t mention mobile phones again and describe their reconfiguration of modern convenience: The ubiquity of the smartphone and the rise of an on-demand "food delivery 2.0" economy is having a profound and lasting impact on food culture (as it has in other spheres of our lives). Delivery apps and digital platforms like DoorDash, Grubhub, Instacart and UberEATS are reconfiguring how consumers acquire foods and beverages, just as online grocery services like AmazonFresh, Peapod and FreshDirect are meeting the needs of changing grocery shopping habits. Subscription meal kits like Blue Apron, HelloFresh and Hungryroot are forcing supermarkets to innovate in ways that better feed our shifting shopping, cooking and eating habits.
Tech and food culture are interconnected; get used to it
Going forward, food industry stakeholders launching technologies, gadgets and digital applications should consider how such creations can be used to craft the highest-quality food experiences possible. In their most successful offerings, technology and digital platforms assist consumers in making a human connection with foods, beverages and meals. Rather than holding on to now-dated notions of technology as a driver of efficiency, predictability and scalability, why not conceptualize technology as a tool for creating unique, compelling, customized food experiences? Whatever the innovation, expect a cultural shift away from an internet of information to an internet of richer experiences where transparency will be taken to new heights as consumers literally become involved in the production and consumption of things.
As leaders in the study of American food culture, The Hartman Group has been tracking how Americans shop for food since the 1990s. From one-stop shopping to multichannel shopping to online markets and click-and-collect, we continue to track consumers’ evolving perceptions, needs, habits and relationships with food retailers. New to the 2017 report is a special section on the expansion of the discount grocery channel, the emerging fresh-format channel and smaller-footprint retail formats.